Changing the Direction of the Ship: Racebending Panel at SDCC

This is the second annual Racebending panel on media diversity; this year the panel featured comics writers Marjorie Liu and Brandon Thomas, video game writer David Gaider, screenwriter Javier Grillo-Marxuach, writer Sarah Kuhn, and author N. K. Jemisin.

That there are still problems with diversity in mainstream media is the foundation on which the entire discussion is predicated, and this thesis is borne out by the experiences of the panelists. Misconceptions, bias, and prejudice abound, on the editorial side and in the audience. Liu was encouraged by an editor to adopt a less obviously Asian pen name; Thomas talked about how his mother worried that there would be problems if the readers of his comics column knew he was black (“and she was right!”). N.K. Jemisin observed that epic fantasy is still thought of as being restricted to a whitewashed version of medieval Europe; as a fantasy writer who is black (rather than a “black fantasy writer,” she points out), she encounters both readers who are shocked to discover her race and also those who assume that all her characters must be of a like race.

If there’s one theme that seems to be emerging at SDCC—not just in the panels, but in the convention as a whole—it’s the tension between what we’ll call the “mainstream” and what lies outside of it—the indies, the marginalized, the outliers. The definition of “mainstream” varies, of course, depending on where you’re standing; if you’re a comics person, “mainstream” might mean the Big Two, but it also might mean the Big Studios setting up camp in Hall H.

The Racebending panel coalesced around this theme when the conversation got to the question of how increased diversity is integrated into the mainstream—while a fan-created mod that allows Dragon Age players to map a wider range of races onto the background characters is great, why not have that as part of the game by default?

It’s all about money, a point that was made several times over. Thomas pointed out that there’s a lot more diversity and flexibility in independent comics, and that in theory a sufficient number of projects like his own Miranda Mercury would demonstrate to the Big Two that they’re leaving money on the table by not marketing to a wider, more diverse audience.

The mainstream, Grillo-Marxuach said, “is a colossal cruise ship where you can eat all you want of the food that they give you,” and a big ship takes a long time to turn around. “Or you wreck the ship,” Jemisin pointed out, suggesting that fan outrage can make a real difference. (This metaphor got increasingly belabored as the panel went on; by the time Grillo-Marxuach was talking about “bombing the ship, use pieces of their ship to rebuilt your ship,” Jemisin laughed and remarked that they’d probably taken that one as far as it could go.)

Agency for change is largely in the hands of the fans, the consumers. Gaider pointed out that the video game industry is extremely risk-averse—as are all the major entertainment industries represented here—and while creators can put out all the diverse work they want, it’s only going to be truly effective when the fans vote with their wallets. “You need to sever your codependent relationship with the industry, too,” Grillo-Marxuach said. “As long as the money comes in and as long as you continue to work on stuff you continually disapprove of, guess what?” “You have to stop buying and tell them why,” Liu added later.

Progress is slow, and it’s frustrating. Kuhn offered a hopeful point, though—she noted that children’s programming on Disney and Nickelodeon is significantly more open to diverse casting, and that young audiences are entirely accepting of it. As children raised on these shows grow up, this may be the sort of media landscape that they come to expect.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX and is attending Comic-Con for the fifth time.


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